Nathaniel Frank is a senior research fellow at the Palm Center at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and an adjunct faculty member at New York University. His recently released book, Unfriendly Fire, chronicles the story of “don’t ask, don’t tell,” the U.S. Military’s hotly-contested policy on gay service members.
You’re a historian by training. How did you get interested in “don’t ask, don’t tell?”
The historian aspect was a big part of it. I was in graduate school in the 1990’s when “don’t ask, don’t tell” got started. As a historian where you’re trained to tell the truth, suddenly here was this policy that, by law, punishes people for telling the truth and requires lying in the name of morale. That struck me as being something that was untenable and really un-American. This powerful military and country, my country, would argue furiously that it needed to violate all the honor codes of the military in order to preserve unit cohesion. That was the impetus. Also at a personal level, I was coming out myself during this period and something that I realized was so important to my well-being and to my relationships with other people, being honest with this part of me, was being punished. That didn’t sit well with me so I started writing.
In your book you argue that “don’t ask, don’t tell” weakens the military and threatens national security.
Under the policy, 13,000 service members have been fired for being gay or engaging in homosexual conduct. These are people who include many critical specialists—Arabic linguists, fighter pilots, medical professionals—people that we are having trouble recruiting and retaining in the military. When we can’t fill those slots, the military lowers its standards and grants more waivers for ex-convicts, drug abusers and high-school dropouts. There is a direct correlation between kicking out good people and lowering those standards to fill shortfalls. There are a couple of other reasons why it undermines the military. Because of the policy, a lot of gay and lesbian service members can’t, or don’t, speak honestly to military professionals including chaplains, doctors, psychologists—the support staff who are critical to military readiness. There’s a reason that all of these resources are available to service members, especially when they are overseas fighting our wars or in hostile terrain undergoing stress and can’t access those professionals in other ways. You can’t just reach into your pocket for a psychologist in Baghdad. You have to rely on what the military provides you. If you can’t be honest with them because you are worried that you might be under their suspicion and be investigated for your sexuality, then a critical part of readiness and morale is being yanked away from thousands of gay and lesbian service members. Finally, the policy was supposed to preserve privacy and make sexuality into a non-issue. It’s really done the opposite, however, and shown a magnifying glass on everyone’s sexuality. It really is a source of suspicion, gossip and rumors for everyone, not just gays and lesbians.
With Obama in the White House and a renewed debate over gay marriage, is “don’t ask, don’t tell” going to change anytime soon?
I think there’s momentum and pressure in Washington to finally start being honest in policy about gay rights. There are many in politics that have gotten beyond homophobia and know that homosexuality doesn’t cause the disruptions that people say it does, but nevertheless, are politically unwilling to be honest and associated with gay rights. I think those people will look back in not too many years and say that they wished that they had said something sooner. I think Obama himself will look back and say I wish I had been less fearful about one of the most important civil rights issues of our time, not to mention an important national security issue. So I think that the tide is turning. I’ve seen polls in the military and outside of the military showing real movement towards tolerance and acceptance of homosexuality. There’s research that I and others have written about, and spoken about, including the military’s own studies, which I talk about in the book, that show that openly-gay service works. And you see it politically and culturally. It’s becoming less toxic.
Was the passage of Proposition 8 a setback?
California is a large, diverse state and it continues to take some time to reach large numbers of people. The fear tactics that homophobes and opponents of gay rights—those are not necessarily the same thing—have used against gay rights are not the truth. Those doomsday scenarios of civilization grinding to a halt, the family crumbling because gays are treated equally, are just that, scare-tactics. As people come out, and others recognize that they have family, friends, and coworkers who are gay, it changes things. This was the most important argument of the early gay rights movements, the Harvey Milk movement. Everyone coming out was the most radical and important thing that one could do because it’s impossible to maintain these stereotypes when you see that they are simply made up. It’s one of the things that I have tried to do in the book and it’s one of the reasons that “don’t ask, don’t tell” is so maddening and so tragic. The policy takes one group of people and singles them out. It says you alone can’t step forward to defend yourself.
The military and intelligence agencies have a tremendous shortage of linguistic experts, most noticeably Arabic translators. But does changing “don’t ask, don’t tell,” ultimately solve this problem?
Lifting the ban on gays will not suddenly mean that we will have all of our slots filled. Our poor economy has done a very good job at moderating our recruitment problems. Applications are way up for military service so there are many ingredients in this stew. But if we want to create a sound policy for national security, not to mention a just one, we shouldn’t rely on discredited prejudices and stereotypes.